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Analysis: the awesome power of the illegal high

Hallucinogens as cancer drugs, poppy fields left untouched. Is the focus of the "war on drugs" shifting?

A protester smokes marijuana during a demonstration against penalties for the consumption of small amounts of drugs, in Medellin, Colombia, May 8, 2010. (Fredy Builes/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — “Drugs win drug war.”

That was the prescient headline of a 1998 dispatch in The Onion. “Despite all our efforts,” the satirical newspaper reported, “the U.S. government has proven no match for the awesome power of the illegal high.”

Funny stuff. But a dozen years later, serious news outlets are writing pretty much the same story.

“After 40 years,” the Associated Press reported this month, “the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.”

As a correspondent in South America, I cover the upstream end of the illegal drug business, the waste and failure of which has seemed to make no difference to policymakers in Washington.

It’s not that drug-war skeptics have some magic formula. But for a long time, U.S. lawmakers shied away from even considering alternatives to our zero-tolerance militaristic approach for fear of being labeled soft on drugs and losing the next election.

That’s why it’s been fascinating to watch drug-law reforms bubble up from cash-strapped state governments in the U.S. And though changes to our approach overseas have been slower to materialize, the Obama administration — which announced its new drug control strategy this month — is making a few moves in the right direction in places like Colombia and Afghanistan.

“For once we have the wind at our backs instead of in our faces,” said Bill Piper of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. “More people are talking about alternatives and saying in public what they thought in private.”

Many of the domestic initiatives are practical moves to deal with budget deficits and prisons overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders.

Californians, for example, will vote in November on a referendum on whether to legalize marijuana for casual users, a policy that some studies suggest could bring in more than $1.4 billion in annual tax revenue.

New Jersey recently became the 14th state to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes, a move that the District of Columbia may follow. If so, we could have medical marijuana dispensaries in the nation’s capital sometime next year.

States are getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. And several top-notch universities, including Harvard, are experimenting with hallucinogens as possible treatments for cancer, post-traumatic stress and depression.

But will these sensible changes at home translate into more effective U.S. policies abroad?